This book review appeared previously at Pop Matters.
reviewed by Norman Ball
In a global economy parched for growth and a buying public stretched for boots-on-the-ground mall time, progressively invasive online protocols promise to brook fewer and fewer complaints. Soon, if not already, online commerce will be deemed too big to fail. We will be asked to throw our cellular particulars into the fray, and you know what? We’ll hand over scraped skin cells like the big wussies we are. Hey Patrick Henry, you wanna job or not?
Recently, I put a question to the CIO of a large financial services firm at an Internet privacy group event: When you compound the emotional and financial toll identity theft exacts on affected consumers with the frequency of high-visibility data breaches, is tolerance for online commerce potentially exhaustible? My point was that while the industry can theoretically indulge a spy-vs.-spy ‘attack-counterattack’ dynamic forever (all the while perfecting its defenses with each successive data breach and of course passing the cost onto us) the battle is asymptotic. Final victory is unattainable. We consumers, on the other hand, have but one social security number to give our economy. Life is short. Particulars are few. No one wants to spend every third weekend resurrecting his or her commercial viability. Confirming Upton Sinclair’s claim (well sort of) that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his IT budget depends upon his not understanding it, this particular CIO smirked before shifting into techno-acronymic mode and rattling off a series of eerily dystopian countermeasures that loom on the horizon: biometrics, fingerprint recognition, retinal scans, contextual ID’s and identity wallets. I suppose in a pinch and for the right product features, there’s always a consumer’s first-born child as genetic proof-positive. Prepare for identity daycare centers, at least for big-ticket items.
Though blessedly less prosaic than what just passed above, my question was, I realized, more rhetorical than reality-based. After all, 2014’s Cyber Black Monday posted record sales, undaunted it would seem by last year’s Target and Neiman Marcus data breaches which potentially compromised tens of millions of identities. In a global economy parched for growth and a buying public stretched for boots-on-the-ground mall time, progressively invasive online protocols promise to brook fewer and fewer complaints. Soon, if not already, online commerce will be deemed too big to fail. We will be asked to throw our cellular particulars into the fray, and you know what? We’ll hand over scraped skin cells like the big wussies we are. Hey Patrick Henry, you wanna job or not?
This is a normalization process. Eddie Bernays’ century-old project of body-snatching citizens and leaving consumers in their wake has yielded the desired hyper-appetitive blobs. Increasingly, our commercial identity is who we are. How sad is that? After all, no one camps out days in advance at a polling booth. We reserve that kind of fervor and conviction for Best Buy in late November. The real crime is our civic lassitude. Watching the beastly display of citizen-buyers wrestling on the floor for the latest plastic gizmo—as though their identities depended on it—brings to mind one thing: Affixing the Beast’s mark will be a protocol that barely registers comment.
In the meantime, this horrible abdication must be policed and democracy kept safe for commerce. To that end, the private sector has been joined mightily by law enforcement agencies. In his recent book The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online and the Cops Followed, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), Nate Anderson offers a fascinating primer on how the policing effort has evolved after a rather slow start. Anderson, Deputy Editor at on-line IT journal Ars Technica, offers a series of case studies where the implicit dilemma tends to circle around the old Dionysian-Apollonian vexation: how to balance the anarchic spirit of creative epiphany against the stodgy old control-paradigm of put your hands up and don’t move! Somehow, evil must be kept at bay without smothering innovation beneath a blanket of thin blue lines. Another crucial point Anderson makes is how the lines have blurred between spy-craft and policing, a development as troubling as it appears inevitable. Police surveillance smacks of something between pre-crime monitoring and voyeurism. My goodness, isn’t there enough post-crime to fight?
Throughout the book, Anderson’s examples range from the utopian to the creepy to the prurient to the jaw-droppingly accessible. Apparently, Needle Park has gone on hiatus. Mail-order heroin is just a click away.
The Sealand/HavenCo story reads like an Internet version of ‘The Mouse That Roared’. Sealand was a circa 2000 attempt at creating a principality in North Sea waters in the cement leg (yes!) of an abandoned WWII naval fort. HavenCo was the data hosting service that operated in Sealand for the purpose of hosting companies with controversial material via a satellite Internet link. Both were established with the loftiest libertarianism in mind. However in short order the principality and the business clashed as the former aspired to act more like a sovereign nation (it even had a prince); HavenCo accused Sealand of nationalizing it while discouraging some of its more off-color customers. One of the last straws for HavenCo was when Sealand embraced international copyright law. Sell-outs! Of course as Anderson points out, the larger world was closing in anyway, all across the globe. HavenCo had overestimated the impregnability of its chilly North Sea platform. Since connectivity implicates at least two loci, in-border crime—albeit originating from international waters—becomes eminently prosecutable when the dodgy content terminates in your precinct’s backyard. It had just taken the authorities a little time to figure their latitudes and crack down. That’s a large theme in the book, by the way: Keystone cops forever shimmying up a learning curve all parties are ascending with the bad guys always one shimmy ahead.
Other essays range from spam king Oleg Nikolaenko who provided much of the impetus for the CAN-SPAM Act to the music industry’s full-on assault on single mom Jammie Thomas for illegal music downloads. As Anderson points out rather sardonically, the “optics weren’t great—faceless coastal corporations against small-town Midwestern mom.” Nonetheless much was riding on the case for the industry. The ensuing trials proved a nightmare for all parties, though the industry ultimately prevailed against Thomas to the tune of $222,000, an amount as yet unpaid.
On the creepier side, there’s the tale of the overly curious webcams controlled by remote access tool (RAT) software, often a malware download which allows unknown voyeurs to control webcams on stranger’s computers, take photos of the victims and send them detailed instructions that clearly indicate the users are being watched. The psychological trauma resulting from this activity can be understandably quite acute; nor is the sense of personal invasion mitigated when it turns out law enforcement is the perpetrator as in the case of one substitute teacher who was arrested after a period of on-line surveillance for allegedly receiving stolen property (her PC). There are also warrant issues as Anderson points out with the FBI’s attempt to judiciously use Computer & Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) to monitor the email activity of a suspicious machine. Often these warrants are set for extremely finite periods of time. In fact the FBI’s formidable suite of in-house cyber-surveillance tools are closely vetted with bureau attorneys for legal compliance. The point Anderson makes is that even legally-sanctioned surveillance is, well, creepy.
Meanwhile the judiciary is on the look-out for government fishing expeditions. As one Texas judge opined of the FBI’s surveillance software, “what if the target computer is located in a public library, Internet café…what if the computer is used by family or friends uninvolved in the illegal scheme?” Good questions indeed, Your Honor.
Another essay deals with early FBI packet sniffer Carnivore where the same argument is made:
“It might be looking for Joe X. Terrorist’s e-mails in transit, or it might try to monitor his instant messages, but yours and mine might also pass through the same router.”
Somehow discriminating searches have to be kept to their narrow charters. The recent news of NSA employees going through the personal information of acquaintances is hardly encouraging.
Anderson is a great writer with a lucid style. The stories are at times humorous yet consistently informative and his grasp of recent jurisprudence is formidable. Even more important, he writes without obvious ideological bias. This agnostic approach gives reasonable voice to all sides.
Sealand/HavenCo’s John Barlow makes a final, surreal appearance in the book speaking at a 2011 e-G8 meeting in counterpoint to French President Nicolas Sarkozy who, one suspects, is oblivious to the subtly patronizing premise of his views when he intones:
“Don’t forget that behind the anonymous Internet user there is a real citizen living in a real society and a real culture and a nation to which he or she belongs, with its laws and its rules.”
And the Internet is what, Mr. President? A La-La Land for time-wasters bereft of all cultural and societal coordinates? Sacré bleu and cue Janet Jackson—we are a part of the cyber nation!
Much to his surprise, Barlow is met with applause when he responds that the meeting’s focus is nothing more than an attempt to impose, “the standards of some business practices and institutional power centers that come from another era on the future, whether they are actually productive of new ideas or not.” In the end, there is no end, or as Anderson says: “We’re never going to engineer the mess out of [the Internet].” The best protection against creativity and innovation is public vigilance, pragmatism, tolerance and informed policing. And have I got the midnight shoppers to champion this high cause (not).
In the final analysis, Anderson’s studious equanimity and telling of all sides, while serving as the book’s primary strength, leaves this reader with a vague disquiet nonetheless. I probably violate the eminently reasonable scope of Anderson’s endeavor when I suggest that, maybe just maybe, there’s more to this enforcement racket than a bunch of well-meaning cops trying to get along in a good game of chase. Indeed there are nefarious agendas within law enforcement about which Anderson seems too polite to ponder. Our freedoms are most imperiled, not from some villain du jour glaring down from a wanted poster, but from a tech-laden government assiduously giving him chase, all for our ‘protection’. Then again, that might just be my own ideological druthers talking, a failing which Anderson has the good sense to avoid.